See The Last Waltz in a Theater (if you can)

The Last Waltz (1978)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
United Artists, 117 minutes, Not-rated.

There is a moment in The Last Waltz that is chiseled in my memory. Rick Danko stands at the microphone and sings the lead to “Stage Fright.” He is filmed from behind with a cone of frontal light highlighting the contours of his hair as if he were John the Baptist being anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Hyperbole? Perhaps, but who had ever seen a rock concert filmed like this before? Martin Scorsese wasn’t exactly an unknown in 1975–he had, after all, directed Mean Streets (1973)–but he was still a hungry up and coming director who had not yet directed Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellahs, The Age of Innocence, or The Wolf of Wall Street; Taxi Driver was still in production. Scorsese’s mastery on The Last Waltz was such the National Film Registry found it of enduring cultural and historical significance. It’s why a rockumentary is held by the Library of Congress.

Many observers call The Last Waltz the greatest concert film of all time. That’s subjective, but in my mind it’s a toss-up between it and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984), the latter of which owes a debt to Scorsese. For those who don’t know, The Last Waltz documents the final concert of the Canadian-American rock ensemble known as The Band: Robbie Robertson (guitar, piano, vocals), Rick Danko (bass, fiddle, vocals), Levon Helm (percussion, mandolin, vocals), Richie Manuel (keys, dobro), and Garth Hudson (keys, saxophone). After 17 years on the road, The Band decided to call it quits and held a musical going away party on November 25, 1975 at promoter Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.

It had been a glorious run for a group of guys initially called The Hawks because they backed rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins. In 1965, the group became the guys in the background for an even more famous figure: Bob Dylan. Dylan simply referred to them as “the band,” and the name stuck. As The Band, they racked up a number of hits in their own right, among them: “Ophelia,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” I think Levon Helms might have been the first drummer I ever saw who sang lead vocals. (Or maybe it was Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees.)

Recently I had an opportunity to see a restored print of The Last Waltz and it’s even better than I remembered it. Who could wish for a better retirement bash than one featuring guests such as Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Doctor John, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Mavis Staples, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, and Ronny Wood? There was also a parade of poets, not the least of which was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Oh yeah, Dylan showed up as well and it might be the only time in his career in which he laughed, thanked the audience, and was in a good mood. This film could be subtitled “Dylan Smiles.”

The opening credits implore, “This film should be played loud.” Damn right! Everyone who sees it has a favorite moment. I have several. Robertson was on fire during the evening and reminds us that he is an underrated guitarist. If you doubt that, watch his duet with Eric Clapton on “Further on Up the Road.” It’s also great fun to see Muddy Waters digging deep on “Mannish Boy” and Dylan singing a tight version of “Forever Young.” But the moment that brings me to my knees is Neil Young getting off to a false start (feedback issues) before hunkering over his harmonica and leading everyone into a gorgeous version of “Helpless.” From back stage comes a soaring harmony of crystalline purity: Joni Mitchell. The song builds to a climax with Danko, Robertson, and Young crowding around the mic and Mitchell texturing from the wings. It is, simply, the best version of this beloved Neil Young song I’ve ever heard. I was literally in tears. Maybe you will have a different favorite moment, but whatever it is, pay attention to how Scorsese moved the cameras, interspliced interviews and music, and filmed light and shadow.

This film can be viewed on YouTube, but my advice is: Don’t. Do. It. Hold out for a big screen version of it in a theater with sound that can do it justice. And, yes, it should be played loud. I’d add, “This film should be viewed BIG.” There have been criticisms of The Last Waltz. Helm, for instance, claimed Robertson hijacked it and put himself front and center. (Hey, he produced it!) No matter what anyone says, though, Marty Scorsese redefined how we think of a rock doc. MTV debuted three years after The Last Waltz was first in theaters and it is yet to marry music and art with Scorsese’s aplomb. 

Rob Weir


New Music: Joshua Radin, Lillie Mae, San Fermin and More

January Music Short Cuts

One of my favorite listening experiences of the month was catching up with a few Joshua Radin songs from his new release Here, Right Now. Radin is one of those singer songwriters you think you don’t know until you hear someone on American Idol performing one of his compositions, or some gorgeous tune catches your attention on a TV show or movie and you see his name in the credits. He even performed at the wedding of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. Radin will knock you down with a feather. His songs are deeply moving and his voice what you’d imagine a warm breeze to sound like. The title track is a sweet tune about grace–the kind you give to yourself when you realize that everything I’ve done/Has broughten me to you. Note how high and effortlessly he reaches and how much honest emotion comes with it. I also really liked “Only a Wave (Better Days)” with its bittersweet take on coming to peace with a relationship that just isn’t working: I saw you as the sun/But you’re only a day/I saw you as the ocean/But you’re only a wave…. Radin’s voice alone is a cleansing experience.

Dalton Domino recently released Songs from the Exile. He’s a songwriter based in Lubbock, Texas, with a good sense of red dirt country, though he actually hails from Memphis. I recommend “All I Need,” a duet with Kalsey Kulyk; it’s love with wine-soaked kisses and cigarette smoke amped by lots of electric guitar. Then tamp it down with “Corners,” an acoustic confessional of bad boy whose change of heart is incomplete: I’m not prayin’ for acceptance/But if forgiveness never comes, I’ll understand.

The Blind Boys of Alabama are serious about the subject of prayer. They might also be the longest-lived gospel group in the country. This multi Grammy Award winning band has been performing since 1939, when they crystallized at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind. As you might expect, none of the current seven members were around back then, but there’s scarcely a black artist or civil rights leader who hasn’t called upon the BBoA to join them and vocalists Jimmy Carter Ricky McKinnie have been associated with group since the 1970s. Listen to the Blind Boys make their way through old chestnuts such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” or something less familiar such as “I Can See.” I suppose we can call the latter an inner sight song, given that most of the band is actually blind or visually impaired.

The singing and guitar picking of Billy Strings sounds as if he’s as old as the hills, but he’s actually just 27 and hails from Lansing, Michigan, not Appalachia. But when he joins forces with a few friends also weaned on bluegrass giants such as David Grisman, Bill Monroe, and Del McCoury, you’ll swear the Soggy Bottom Boys jumped off the movie screen and into the studio. Paste Studios offers a tasty sampler of “Everything’s theSame,” “Taking Water,” and “Freedom.

Lillie Mae (Rische) used to play guitar and fiddle in Jack White’s band. Now she’s on her own and she’s quite a treat. She can take us to melancholy places, as she does on “You’ve Got Other Girls For That” with its realization that what she wants isn’t going to happen. Then she gets old-time country on “Whole Blue Heart,” which she croons with a catch in her voice that’s almost a yodel. Lillie Mae teases a lot of power from what is essentially a small, bird-like voice. Listen also to “A Golden Year,” which sounds like a country madrigal blend. 

Little Lamb is the stage name of Maine-born-Brooklyn-based indie rocker/indie folk artist Amy Spaltro. Ba Da Bing Records has released her latest, Even in the Tremor. The title track uses bass and looped thumps as the scaffolding for a song that’s emblematic of her repertoire. She starts in a low register and stays in a tranquil space before upping both pace and voice. Hers is a young voice and, frankly, she’s on the edge of bottoming up on the low end of the scale. She has an infectious charm, however, that’s a combo of fragility and perseverance. Try also “Deep Love,” her reminder that rooted connections (sister, mother, lover) is an antidote to existential despair.

Staying in Brooklyn, San Fermin is an unusual indie rock band in that it’s a collective of shifting personnel headed by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a Yale composition grad who serves more as a composer, director, and keyboardist than as a conventional frontman. San Fermin released The Cormorant I in 2019 and II is due this year. It will be interesting to see what’s up Ludwig-Leone’s sleeve as former lead vocalist Charlene Kaye has gone solo (as KAYE). She fit perfectly into San Fermin trippy groove songs, though a singer named Samia shines of “The Hunger, “Run Away With Me,” and “The Cormorant.”  Allen Tate and Karlie Bruce have also taken on lead vox. You can hear Tate on “Summer by theVoid.” The best way to describe the music is to say that it’s more emotive and impressionistic than catchy or propulsive. Better still, just listen.  

Why not another nom de disque to take us out? The Fisherman & the Sea sounds like a lost Hemingway novel. It’s actually the handle of Finnish/German singer songwriter Jon Eden who sings in unaccented English. If that doesn’t intrigue, how about the fact that though he now leads a quartet, his principal instrument in the cajón, a Peruvian box drum? (He mostly plays guitar on his newest release.) His 4th LP is titled The Hurt & The Humour, an 11-track release that evokes his various influences, including Elliott Smith, the Foo Fighters, and Mumford and Sons. Watch his cheeky “Beggar Princess.” Pay attention to the images on the video. Eden is a burly guy and he has a big voice to go with it. You can watch a big piece of the album on YouTube, including “A Song for the Hills” and “The Bear.” You’ll hear a bit of Foo Fighters in the latter, but what you’ll surmise from all three is that Eden has also been deeply influenced by Nordic folk tales and lullabies.

Rob Weir


Judy is Over-Hyped

Judy (2019)
Directed by Rupert Goold.
LD Entertainment, 118 minutes, PG-13 (drug abuse, language)

Judy, the new biopic about Judy Garland (1922-69) has gotten a lot of attention, including Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe Best Actress award to Renée Zellweger in the title role. Beware the hype. Judy is a classic case of a film that looks better than it is.

Rupert Goold is best known as a London theatre director and the script for Judy is based on Peter Quilter’s play, The End of the Rainbow. The film adaptation often feels more like a play than a movie; it’s a series of vignettes that stage live, but feel static and claustrophobic on the screen. The film stitches together flashbacks to Garland’s early days in Hollywood to set up the last six months of her life when she was broke, unstable, and forced onto the road.

Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm to vaudevillian parents. She performed with her two older siblings and the act’s name was changed to the more pleasant-sounding Garland Sisters. Judy signed with MGM in 1935, when she was just 13. We meet Judy (Darci Shaw) when she was 14 and filming The Wizard of Oz. Her relationship with MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) would today have #MeToo up in arms. It wasn’t sexual, but Mayer used passive aggressive bullying to turn her into a studio puppet and diet pill addict. She remained hooked for her entire life. (Her death at age 47 was due to an overdose of Seconal and was perhaps a suicide.)

The film pivots around Judy’s 1968 performances in England. By then, Garland was a mess. She had married and divorced four times, battled third husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of Joey and Lorna, and displayed narcissistic personality traits–including pill popping and heavy drinking–that chased away prospective employers. Luckily, she was still a legend in London, where impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) gambled he could keep a tight rein on Garland through threats and aide Rosalyn Wilder’s (Jessie Buckley) bird dogging. Good luck with that! Judy’s main accomplishment in London was to acquire another inappropriate husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Whittrock), an enabling huckster musician 13 years her junior.

The movie also depicts several touching encounters between Judy and two gay men, Burt (Royce Pierreson) and Dan (Andy Nyman). They are both composites and mildly anachronistic. Garland had a gay following, but her iconic status within the community–the Advocate once dubbed her “the Elvis of homosexuals”–mostly developed posthumously. Garand was not gay, but her brassy contralto voice and theatrical personality held appeal for voguing drag queens. (They were also drawn to other bigger-than-life personalities such as Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler.)

Judy gets most of the details right; the problems lie with delivery, not content. Renée Zellweger has Garland’s mannerisms down pat: puckered lips and drawn-in chin suggestive of a pout, flights of destructive rage, furrowed brow, dramatic lipstick, sparkly pant suits, and her love of big production numbers. What she lacks is the voice. Zellweger did all of her own singing and she’s a surprisingly good vocalist, but she’s not Judy Garland! Believe me, I know. My father adored Judy; it was a rare Sunday in which I didn’t awake to “The Trolley Song,” You Made Me Love You,” “Over the Rainbow,” and other such standards. He also watched her TV show and every one of her movies that made it onto the box. I didn’t much like the music, but I certainly intuited that hers was a generational voice. Zellweger tries, but we can hear her laboring to reach notes that were child’s play for Garland. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Zellweger and Garland side by side.

Let me be frank; Zellweger has always been a second-tier actress in terms of ability. I saw nothing in Judy that made me reconsider. We notice the secondary cast more than Zellweger. Shaw is endearing as young Judy and Cordery is chilling as Mayer, whom he plays like Dick Cheney about to eat someone’s liver. Rufus Sewell deserves credit for transcending his thinly written character and imbuing Sidney Luft with more depth. Jessie Buckley is superb and eye-catching as Wilder. Fans of Game of Thrones might recognize Bella Ramsey, who plays Judy’s second daughter Lorna Loft; (She was Lyanna Mormont in GOT.) Gemma-Leah Devereux makes a cameo as Liza Minnelli, Garland’s daughter to Vincente Minnelli, her second husband.

I wish Hollywood would red-light entertainer biopics. In Hollywood’s golden age, actors created roles on the screen. These days it’s celebrities trying to inhabit the personalities of other celebrities–the difference between acting and mimicry. Zellweger might win an Oscar in a few weeks but she won’t make me love her.

Rob Weir